Libraries in America, according to historical accounts, date back to 1636 in Boston, although libraries didn’t become community norms until the late 19th and 20th centuries. The biggest was the New York Public Library in New York City, which began in 1849. It was only 16 years later that Redwood City would emerge with one of the first libraries in the west, and certainly in California.
In April 1865 the cornerstone for the first library in Redwood City was laid. Located on Main Street a short distance south of Broadway (then named Bridge Street), the library shared a building with the San Mateo County Gazette newspaper. Most libraries at this time, including Redwood City’s, were subscription based, founded by an association whose members bought stock in the enterprise and managed it for the cultural benefit of the community.
In February 1891, the library moved. Citizens donated a variety of items to and for the use and comfort of the library such as: books, sacks of coal, an “elegant” clock, a table and chair for the librarian, and a lamp, just to name a few. One man, who was employed to clean the library once a month, refused to accept pay. In turn, he was granted the privilege of using the library and checking out its books.
By June of 1891, the initiation fee was abolished in order to encourage the public to use the library; it also became possible with the librarian’s discretion for visitors to borrow books at 10 cents per volume.
In September 1900, Ordinance No. 30 was introduced and passed, providing for the establishment of a full tax-supported free public library and reading room in Redwood City. Laura Barton was appointed head librarian. The library board was also established.
In March of 1904, the City received a bequest of $10,000 from Andrew Carnegie for a new library on lands provided by the school district. Local architect Alfred Coffee, who had helped in the design of Sequoia High School, was asked to prepare plans.
Six months after opening, the 1906 earthquake nearly destroyed the building. A new grant from Carnegie and others allowed the rebuilding and reopening of the library in 1907. Redwood City Public Library is the only library in the country to receive two Carnegie library grants for the same site.
The Depression affected libraries throughout the country, and Redwood City was no exception. People seemed to spend more of their leisure time in self-education through literature. At the height of the Depression, the 1933-34 circulation figures hit an all-time high. The Redwood City Public Library was serving the needs of 83 percent of the city's population, a virtually unheard of figure during any period.
In September 1938, residents voted for a bond issue that would generate funds to build a new civic center, including a library. Construction on the new library building began in November and was completed June 1, 1939. The tiled-roof structure featured one story, with a mezzanine for additional book space, and a basement for storage. On the outside wall facing Jefferson Avenue, a quotation from Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle was posted, “All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books. They are the chosen possession of men.”
Perhaps the most important library event during the 1940s was the bequest of $20,000 to the library in the will of Mrs. Hannah Schaberg in memory of her husband, H. W. Schaberg, who had been an early Redwood City civic leader, including a term as county clerk. The money would later help fund the western (Schaberg) branch of the Redwood City Library. Construction began in August 1956 and was completed the following June.
By the 1950s Redwood City’s population had doubled from a decade earlier to 25,000. During the same time period, television grew in popularity, and many librarians feared people would stop using libraries. However, as Library Director Wilhelmina Harper told the Library Board in 1952, “Contrary to the experience of many other libraries, television stimulated book interest” in Redwood City.
The 1970s introduced computers in libraries for customer and staff use. In August 1974, the Redwood City Public Library installed Dialog, a computer-based information retrieval system created by Lockheed. Dialog provided computer-based access to several databases in the fields of science, technology, education, and social sciences.
The year 1974 marked the opening of the Fair Oaks branch in a 750-square-foot space in the Fair Oaks Community Center, funded jointly by Redwood City and San Mateo County Libraries because the branch serves both City and County residents. In 1976, it boasted 5,000 books, records, games, magazines and newspapers -- half of them in Spanish and half in English. In December 1995, the branch moved to a 3,200-square-foot space next door at 2510 Middlefield Road.
With the population growth of Redwood City in the 1970s and 1980s, an expanded Downtown Library was needed, and in June 1984, an $8.4 million bond was passed to improve the civic center, including remodeling historic Fire Station No. 1 into the current 47,000-square- foot Downtown Library, which opened on August 24, 1988.
In 1992, Redwood City Public Library won the first national Library-of-the-Year award, recognizing not only the new building with its computer access, but also its programs, such as the free child-care for parents on Saturday mornings, health lectures for senior citizens, and storytelling programs for schools. Moreover, the library had reached out to its Hispanic population by tripling the Spanish language collection and hiring bilingual staff members.
The Redwood Shores Branch Library, built with a $10.1 million grant from the State of California, opened in 2008 as a full-service, high-tech facility with a mix of community meeting spaces that could double as homework centers and classrooms. There are designated spaces for families and teens as well as lounge areas, an information area, an interactive interpretive center and a café.
In recent years, the Downtown Library has undergone a number of improvements. The Children’s Room was expanded to double its space and an Early Childhood Literacy Center was installed. A teen center was added to the second floor, and enclosed study rooms were created to accommodate the public need for meeting spaces.
Redwood City Public Library has come quite a long way since the days of the Carnegie library building. Today the award-winning library system accommodates over 840,000 visitors per year who check out over 1.1 million items, over half of which are children’s books. Attendance at events and programs is nearly 200,000 people a year, and volunteers contribute over 100,000 hours of service to support services like: Project READ, an intergenerational literacy program founded in 1987; Traveling Storytime, which provides weekly visits to 50 preschools and day care facilities; and many other library programs. While the founders of Redwood City Public Library might not recognize the busy library of today, they would see that the Library’s focus on meeting the most important educational and recreational needs of the community has remained intact over the past 150 years.